Let’s hear it for the teens solving scientific problems and problems in science

21 Sep 2015

From left: BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill, BTYSTE 2015 winners Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy, and Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan. Photo by Connor McKenna

As Irish teens add more scientific awards to their bulging collective trophy case, Elaine Burke feels the buzz of excitement for the annual showcase of young Irish innovation.

This morning marks yet another success for Ireland’s young scientists.

Competing with more than 170 students at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) in Milan, Italy were three students from Ireland – all of whom have walked away with a prize.

To even get to EUCYS, these students were already crowned winners. Eimear Murphy and Ian O’Sullivan from Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, Cork were the overall winners of the 2015 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), while Mark O’Dowd’s project was selected for a special food science expo at this year’s event.

Today (21 September) O’Dowd took the Expo Milan 2015 prize for his project, Injury Increasing Crop Yields, while Murphy and O’Sullivan were awarded the Intel ISEF prize and will go on to compete once again at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona next May.

The next generation of innovation

Today’s EUCYS achievements join a long list of successes from the new generation of Irish innovators.

Most notable among them are the trio of BTYSTE champions from 2013, Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow. The BTYSTE award was the start of a string of successes for this team of schoolgirls and their project, Combating the Global Food Crisis: Diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop growth promoter.

They went on to win international awards at EUCYS 2013 and Google Science Fair 2014, were recognised as ‘Ones to Watch’ on our list of 100 Top Women in STEM and presented with Rising Star awards, only to then be honoured in Time’s list of The 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014 alongside the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

At age 15, Yousafzai was globally recognised as a campaigner for girls’ right to an education – a status that, unfortunately, made her a target for attack. Now 18 and fully recovered from a gunshot to the head, her campaign continues. She has even taken up the banner of promoting coding in education.

Meanwhile, Hickey and Judge are now furthering development of their project through Germinaid Innovations, an agricultural solutions company. (They are also preparing to sit their Leaving Certificate exams in 2016.)

They are not the only enterprising BTYSTE prize-winners. This summer, the Outbox Incubator in London – the world’s first start-up accelerator for girls – recruited Edel Browne and Elle Loughran, who learned skills to develop and refine their respective ideas. Browne’s Free Feet aims to treat gait freezing in Parkinson’s patients with a guiding laser attached to shoes, while Loughran is researching the use of graphene for cancer diagnosis.

Progress from the bottom up

You may or may not have picked up on the fact that all of these scientific wunderkinds are girls, but I’m going to draw your attention to it anyway. This is significant because, in the grown-up world, the gender gap in science and technology – though widely acknowledged – is proving difficult to overcome.

While progress is coming at a snail’s pace in the adult world, the youngsters are pioneering a new era of gender parity. This year’s BT Young Scientist exhibition showcased projects from almost 50-50 boys and girls and the winning project came from a team with an equal gender mix.

Murphy and O’Sullivan’s winning research was also remarkable for tackling a social science issue – alcohol consumption. Paul Clarke, 2014’s winner, made some new discoveries in the complex field of cyclical graph theory and, in doing so, put mathematics in the spotlight and into the consciousness of his peers.

A remarkable time to be a teenager

In the 21st century, teenagers are developing scientific solutions to global issues, tackling complex mathematical problems, and fighting incredibly difficult battles for rights long overdue to their peers.

BTYSTE has proven itself as a launchpad to success for young people, but it’s also an overwhelming source of encouragement for them to engage with STEM and, by extension, STEAM.

And it’s not just about rewarding the next generation, we have to listen to them, too. They are replete with inspired ideas and largely unmotivated by what drives adults’ commercial interests. Just look at the amount of BTYSTE projects that address a global need or an issue affecting the creators’ lives personally.

These young people are problem-solvers in a very selfless way. They have abundant energy, passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing, and they are fearless in a way an older person often can’t afford to be.

BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2016

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is, hands down, my absolute favourite event in the sci-tech calendar because it is by far the most rewarding.

I am now starting to see the same faces at CoderDojo, Girls Hack Ireland, CTYI and on the Digital Youth Council. This community of young innovators is solid, smart, successful and exciting.

If you are an adult and you want to be encouraged by the future of sci-tech, drop in on the exhibition in 2016. You will not regret it.

If you are a secondary school student with a great idea and buckets of enthusiasm, applications for the 2016 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition close on 29 September. Enter, and let us grown-ups support you as you lead the way.

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Updated 22 September, 5.03pm: The original version of this article said that Intel ISEF will be held in Pittsburgh. This has now been amended with the correct location for next year’s event, Phoenix.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic